“In a detective story, no person is above suspicion. But there are several types who are below it.”
I did it. I finally did it. I knew that if I explored some of Carr’s less popular works, I’d find a gem worth savoring. A book that for some reason has fallen out of favor, leaving it a neglected treasure to be stumbled upon. Below Suspicion is that book. Let me explain how I got here.
Several months back, I took a chance on The Man Who Could Not Shudder, based on a comment from JJ at The Invisible Event that it had an audacious ending. The book definitely had a few weaknesses, such as a plodding first half and a surprising lack of atmosphere for a plot that revolves around a haunted house. Still, I enjoyed it. The pace picked up in the second half and the finale was truly enjoyable. To be clear, it wasn’t top tier Carr, but it didn’t strike me as deserving of the derision it receives.
For my next step, I wasn’t quite ready to jump off the deep end with a book like Deadly Hall or The Hungry Goblin – books written at the end of Carr’s career when the popular consensus is that his skills had slipped significantly. I wanted to play it a bit safer, while at the same time exploring a curiosity of mine:
It’s commonly held that Carr was at his prime between 1930 and 1950, although the exact start and end year makes for a pleasant debate. During this span, the author turned out more classics than I can bother listing. There are less than a handful of titles during this period that are commonly considered duds. Seeing is Believing. The Problem of the Wire Cage. Below Suspicion… maybe And So To Murder. These exceptions interest me. With Carr cranking out so many solid novels, what is it about these few titles that falls flat?
I chose Below Suspicion because it’s one of the more despised of the aforementioned titles. Admittedly, this comes at twilight of the era – 1949 – and so Carr’s glory years could be considered to be waning. Still, many of you know that he had a number of excellent books left – The Bride of Newgate, The Devil in Velvet, The Nine Wrong Answers, and The Witch of the Low Tide just being a few examples. It’s worth noting though that I’ve just listed all historical or non-series books. How do things play out for his core detectives? Merrivale seems to have fallen off with his final books – Behind the Crimson Blind and The Cavalier’s Cup, both stories from the 50’s. Fell extended to Dark of the Moon, in 1969, although he became a much less regular character with the close of the 50’s.
Below Suspicion attracted my attention because it stars Fell, my favorite Carr series detective. It also introduces Patrick Butler, of the even more reviled Patrick Butler for the Defense. Could Fell really be in a bad book? What is it about Patrick Butler that everyone loathes?
Ok, well, that last question seems easy enough to answer. Butler is definitely an interesting choice for a character. Positioned as the lawyer “who is never wrong”, this pompous ass smirks and struts his way through each scene with an air of infallibility. He also imagines that every woman he encounters is madly in love with him.
“By George,” he thought, “she’s falling for me!” His female clients often did, and it was damned awkward.
My take? I love it. It’s nice to have a “point of view” character in a Carr novel that steps out of the role of the “normal man”. You probably know what I’m talking about – the partially bland character that observers the events, but never quite grasps the details of the puzzle. More so, they’re somewhat “ordinary” or perhaps “relatable”, in the fashion of the time.
Patrick Butler is different though. He’s confident to an obvious fault, with a contrived knack of instantly understanding whether an accused client is guilty. Well, this quickly becomes an obviously a flaw – while he can apparently detect an innocent party, there’s little evidence that he can detect the guilty. Still, he surpasses the usual lead in terms of active involvement with the investigation.
Set in the years following WW2, the book begins with somewhat of a short story. Patrick Butler is brought in to defend a secretary accused of poisoning her employer. The accused was the only occupant of a thoroughly locked up house aside from the deceased, who was poisoned with antimony – a metal that apparently served some form of conditioning purpose for a horse’s coat. The early chapters follow a trial where Butler defends the accused, involving some interesting twists. You may detect some obvious parallels with The Judas Window – an innocent accused of a crime that only they could have committed, and the resulting court proceedings.
The plot thickens after the trial when a second poisoning occurs under similar circumstances. A man is poisoned with antimony after drinking from a bottle of water on his bed side stand. The obvious culprit is his wife, who was alone with the bottle for a short time. She claims that the bottle had been within her direct sight since she watched the maid cleaned it, and of course, we believe her story because Patrick Butler is madly in love with her within the first minute of their meeting.
Mostly the plot follows Butler’s investigation, although Fell steps in a few times to push things along. We get a bit of action, with a brawl in a nightclub very reminiscent of the battle with Vulcan that would come in 1957’s Fire, Burn. Throw in some lore of a club of satan worshipping poisoners (reminiscent of the witch coven plot in The Crooked Hinge, which is even referenced), and we have fine trappings for a Carr novel.
The solution to both poisonings left me satisfied; each are a case of classic Carr misdirection. Everything is fairly played and out in the open, but I’d still be surprised if someone worked it out.
So what’s there to hate? I’m not completely sure. Well, I mean, obviously Patrick Butler is an egotistical prat, yet it seems clear that’s what Carr intended him to be. He’s not a character for you to empathize with. He’s the one you gloat at as he’s repeated humbled, both mentally and physically. And yet, for all his brashness, you still hope that he’ll solve the puzzle.
The more obvious flaw for me is the plot-line involving a satan worshipping cult. Carr often uses a flair like this to create atmosphere and intrigue, but I think this is a case where it was poorly executed. A deeper discussion on this will involve very minor spoilers. I’m not going to give away anything big, like the solution to the puzzles. In fact, if you’ve read the back jacket of some editions, some of this may not even be a surprise. Still, I’m sensitive about letting people know what to expect with certain aspects of the plot. You may choose to read ahead even if you haven’t read the story, as I’m not going to spoil key parts of the mystery.
Carr frequently uses the suggestion of sinister elements to redirect the user’s attention from a more straight forward case of simple murder. He does this fairly effectively in The Crooked Hinge, where the suggestion of a coven of witches adds some atmosphere and draws the attention away from the true motive.
With Below Suspicion, though, the satanic cult is actually real. I’m probably wrong on this, but it just feels far-fetched. I mean, were there really clubs of satan worshippers in 1940’s England? Perhaps, but it just feels a little like something I’d expect out of a kitschy pulp horror novel.
Of course, Carr gives us massive footnotes full of references, but it still feels a bit silly. Plus, we get this absolute gem of a declaration: “I am the head of the witch cult.” Really?
Still, I enjoyed the ending, even if I was rolling my eyes a bit. If I can look past a giant skull-shaped castle, I can forgive this, especially since the solutions to the puzzles were so enjoyable.